Make no mistake, Bernard Madoff is a very nasty man. It is not just that he is a thief. Nor is it that he is a spectacularly big thief. No, what is nasty about Mr Madoff is that he stole cold bloodedly from people who trusted him, many of whom saw him day after day, year after year, and whom he encouraged to look on him as a friend.
Yet almost as nasty as Madoff is the lynch mob mentality that has arisen in response to his crimes. Madoff himself has been sentenced to 150 years in jail. This is the sort of meaningless figure that brings the legal system into disrepute. It was prompted solely by a public desire for revenge, not by any real sense of proportion. Madoff will die in prison – perhaps he deserves no less, but it cannot be right that there will be murderers and rapists paroled when he is not.
Now, with a plot twist curiously reminiscent of the television drama Damages, Madoff’s son, Mark, has been found hanged on the second anniversary of his father’s arrest. It can be no coincidence that Mark was one of a large number of defendants in a series of lawsuits filed the previous week by the court-appointed trustee who is responsible for recovering the bankrupt Madoff’s assets.
The trustee clearly thinks it is better to be seen to leave no one un-sued – he is even suing Madoff’s underage grandchildren – than to maximise the amount recovered for Madoff’s creditors by taking a calm, rational approach which would be criticised by the vengeful media. He has therefore adopted a shotgun approach – blasting everything in sight – when what is needed is a careful scalpel to unpeel Madoff’s complex dealings layer by layer.
While his methods may protect him from public opinion, expensive and prolonged litigation is unlikely to benefit Madoff’s creditors, least of all the defrauded investors, who are fairly well down the legal order of priority. Legal expenses will eat into such assets as can be recovered, making lawyers rich at the expense of victims.
Meanwhile, the innocent will suffer with the guilty. A fair trial in New York is unlikely in the current climate. Even those who are eventually exonerated face years of stress, expense, and uncertainty. The legal system can leave a “winner” as bankrupt as a “loser”.
This is not to say that those who collaborated with Madoff, or were criminally negligent, should escape responsibility. However, it must be understood that litigation is always a blunt instrument and there are better ways of handling complex problems. If any good can come from the death of the younger Mr Madoff, it might be the injection of some common sense into sorting out the mess left by his father.